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by H. Bedford-Jones
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: From the pages of the December, 1920 issue of "Adventure" magazine comes this thrilling tale of pirate adventure on the high seas--a rousing action-adventure from H. Bedford-Jones, King of the Pulps!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1920 USA
eBookwise Release Date: July 2008
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [177 KB]
Reading time: 115-161 min.
It was past six bells and growing on to noon, and I was a homesick man as I stood on the quay below London Bridge and watched the King Sagamore swinging on her hawser out in the tideway. For she was Virginia-owned, and I, George Roberts of Virginia, knew her well, so that the sight of her was like a touch of home to me.
Also, I had a vile headache, and my memory of the previous night's events was very hazy. I had met a number of other captains, and I think some ship-owners, at the Royal Arms, though I could remember only Ned Low and the dark man, Russel, because I liked the one and disliked the other. I seemed to remember that Low had promised his interest to try to get me a ship, or else a chief mate's berth, but I could recall little of what he had said, except that he told some gorgeous yarns of the Guinea trade.
"Good morning, Captain Roberts!" came a voice, and I turned to see Russel himself approaching.
I greeted him without pleasure, for there was a sneer in his eyes, and I did not like his gold-laced hat and jeweled fingers, or the look in his dark face.
"You seem mighty busy," he went on, his heavy-lidded gaze searching me. "The cap'n put you under the table, I hear! Well, what think you of the King Sagamore?"
"Out of trim," I responded. "She's down by the head, or I'm a Dutchman!"
"Oh!" said Russel, eying me. "But you're a Virginian, sir--and a seaman to boot! I never heard of seamen coming from Virginia or the other colonies."
This angered me, as it also puzzled me. Why on earth the man should want to pick a quarrel, I could not see. But, knocking out my pipe and smiling, I obliged him swiftly.
"Plenty you never heard of, I imagine! Particularly here in England."
He bent his black brows upon me, scowling.
"How mean you?" he added.
"Why, just this: What was your name before you made it Russel?"
At that, his white teeth showed. He clapped hand to belt as if feeling for a pistol, and I laughed at him.
"Aye, try it with a Virginian!" I told him and chuckled again. "Think you're on the high seas, my bucko? Russel, forsooth! If you're not a Portugee, I don't know my business! Aye, snarl all you please--and ladies' rings to your fingers. You cursed fool, don't you know they hang pirates in London town? How long since you were on the Account, as the gentry of that profession term it?"
That reached him between wind and water, as it were. I really meant to taunt him into action, since I wanted to feel my fist in his dark face; but I went too far. His hands dropped. He stood motionless, his eyes eating into me, and they become bloodshot.
"On the Account!" he repeated the phrase, a thickness in his voice. "You speak glibly of it! Perhaps you've been on the Account yourself, my fine Virginia sailor?"
"Why, perhaps I have," said I cheerfully. "And what of it?"
He looked at me for another moment, then turned on his heel and strode away very swiftly, as one who goes of set purpose. I looked after him, frowning. He had been at the tavern with Captain Low the previous night. Ned Low was an engaging rascal of the sort that men love, had been master of a Guineaman, and had traded at the Indies. Russel was of a very different stripe; a sinister man, certainly no Englishman, and I wondered that Ned Low would keep company with him.
However, I dismissed the matter, filled my pipe afresh and turned to watch the ship out in the stream. She was making ready to sail, and to a seaman's eye she presented some uncommonly interesting aspects.
That homesick feeling grew on me as I looked. My first voyage had been made in her, under old Andrew Scott--a cold and hard master he was, too! Anyone who had sailed with Scott had tales to brag of. But Cap'n Scott was dead and gone these two years, thanks to a drinking bout with Sandy Fisher aboard the Margaret at Barbados; for Sandy craftily mixed some rare claret in the rum, and Cap'n Scott never rose from under the table.
Well, Scott was dead, and here was I a captain, and yonder the old King Sagamore! Heartily did I wish that I were commanding her or at least aboard of her, since I was down to my last guinea, with no hope of a ship except I took out a slaver, for which I had no stomach.
Gossip along the quay told me that she was bound for Virginia, but I doubted this. She was in ballast, and no ship went to Virginia in ballast these days. Also she had bent a new suit of canvas and was fresh-varnished; and I, knowing how stingy were her owners, realized that this was something like a miracle.
What was more, I perceived a featherbed being put aboard her from the lighter alongside. A featherbed, indeed! No wonder all the Thames boatmen jeered her as they passed, and the crew of a fishing-lugger tied at the quay began to bawl comments which set the river in a roar of laughter. I wondered who was going to use that featherbed.
One cannot deny that the King Sagamore has a certain roll to her in the best of seas; an uneasy and fretful roll, as if endeavoring to shake loose of the bloodstains that have sunk into her teak. Even old Cap'n Scott had groaned and left the deck at times.
Just now I heard a voice calling out:
"There 'e be, sir! That's 'im a-smoking of the 'bacca!"
I glanced about, to see a quay loafer pointing me out to a gentleman approaching rapidly. I faced about to meet this stranger in some surprise.
He was a man in a hurry; a small fellow of forty-odd, wizened and thin in the cheeks, his eyes very sparkling. From his heaving chest and awry wig, he had lately been running. As he strode up to me he produced a snuffbox with a great air of grandeur.
"Your pardon, sir," he addressed me, his words rapid and with authority. "You are Captain Roberts, the Virginian?"
"I am," was my response.
"My name is Dennis Langton, merchant and goldsmith, living at the Wheatsheaf in Lombard Street. I had word this morning from Low that you'd be sailing with us."
He rattled this all out in a breath. Then he flung a glance over his shoulder and suddenly thrust the snuffbox at me.
"Here, take this and fetch it aboard wi' you--move sharp now! Tell Ned that I'll come aboard as he drops downstream. Give it to him and no other. With you this side Gravesend--Devil sink me! The dogs have caught the trail--hide it, lad--"
Leaving the snuffbox hidden in my fist, the spry little man darted away from me and ran for cover like a hunted rabbit. I gaped after him, thinking him a madman until the burst of shouts went up from the running men.
"Stop thief!" went up the yells, shrill and sharp with the hunting fever. "Escape! Trip him up--'scape! 'Prentices out--stop thief--king's name! Pirate and thief--"
Upon and past me swept a shrilling throng in a mad rush, two constables in the lead. Langton vanished in among the buildings, and they after him, and the chorus of yells was swiftly drowned in the noise of the city.
I stood there staring after the rout, until the whimsicality of it all drew a laugh from me. The swift change from the pompous manner and address to the wild flight was ludicrous. The incident was strange and unreal--a merchant of Lombard Street pursued as thief and pirate!
Pirate! Dennis Langton! Suddenly the name flashed across my consciousness and startled me. Three years previously, or rather four, since it was early in 1720, I was mate aboard the ship Susannah, owned by a merchant of Southwark Side, near London. There had been much talk aboard her of how she had fallen prey to a brace of pirates near Madeira last voyage and had later escaped. Spriggs was one of the rovers, the same who was lately hanged at Tyburn and still hangs there.
And the other one--Now the name came back to me clear enough! Langton, and none other; Dennis Langton, a soft-spoken man, who was reputed to have murdered many with his own hand.
Could the pirate Langton be the same man as this merchant and goldsmith? Most unlikely, and yet all things are possible in this world!
Now came suspicion that he had stolen the snuffbox which he forced on me, and that I might be taken for a thief. This vanished when I opened my hand. The box was a small one of black wood, absolutely worthless. Nor had the little man the look of a cut-purse.
And what was it he had said about Captain Low? A message for Low, too. And what was that about my shipping with Low? I felt bewildered.
Thrusting the snuffbox into my pocket, I drew again on my pipe, frowning over this singular incident. I was still turning it over in my mind perplexedly, when there arose a new and more singular matter which drove it completely out of my head; and no wonder!
Hearing my name called, I looked around to see Captain Low himself coming toward me, bravely puffing at a pipe and laughing to himself over some inward joke.
"Ha, Roberts! A fine morning to you, George! Damn me, but we had a pretty rouse last night! Why are you standing thus idle in the market place?"
"Why, for lack of work!"
Smiling, I gave him a grip of the hand.
"It seems to me that you said something about looking you up today--but I confess that last rum punch we brewed put a stopper on my brain! Sink me if I can remember a thing."
Low gave me a singular yet whimsical look.
"Come, lad! You don't mean to say that you can't remember our discussion?"
"Not a thing," I said ruefully. "I've lost even the name of your ship, Ned!"
He broke into a roar of laughter, dropped his pipe and smashed it, roared again, then clapped me heartily on the shoulder and swung me about.
"There she lies, Roberts, damn me, this is a creamy jest! Wow! Wait until I tell John Russel about this! And you entered with me as chief mate, too! Oh, lad, ha' pity on me! Yonder's the King Sagamore with poor Gunner Basil loading the last aboard; and me sleeping abed all morning thinking you stood on her deck!"
"Good Lord!" I stammered. "D'you mean to say that I, George Roberts, shipped as chief mate with you--"
He fell to roaring again with laughter, and I chimed in, helpless to withstand it. We stood there like two fools, holding our sides and sending up shouts of mirth that drew curious folk about to stare and wonder if we were loose from Bedlam.
At length I came out of the fit of laughter, and we walked apart down the quay, discussing matters. When I told Low how I had been homesick for the King Sagamore, he began to bellow again.
His news struck me with incredulity, but a glad man I was for the carouse of the night before, since I appeared to have landed a good berth with a man I liked. Ned Low was fully as tall as I, and even wider in the shoulder; a lean man, his face brown and hard as if carven from mahogany, but ever ready to slip into the cheeriest laughter man ever heard. He had a whimsical touch about him, and I think had run away from Oxford for love of the sea, since he could quote the classics by the hour and spoke sometimes of Magdalen Towers.
Well, he speedily made it clear to me that I was signed with him, and that he had all morning supposed me to be aboard, at which we laughed again.
"Russel came back and dragged me from table just as I was sitting down to breakfast with word that you were standing on the quay like a man in a dream," he concluded with a final chuckle. "So I came along to see--"
"Russel!" I said, and frowned. "Does he sail with us?"
Low took my arm frankly and turned me eye to eye with him.
"Listen, Roberts! We've scant time to talk--I must get aboard and see to things. But you're a man after my own heart; I drank you under the table last night to make certain, since rum brings out the worst of a man!
"I know you and Russel must fall out. That's as it should be; but look out that Russel doesn't slip a knife into you. Understand? I have to take him as second mate, willy-nilly, and as we explained last night--Well, run along and get your things, and don't miss the tide on your life! I must aboard."
He turned, calling to a wherry just leaving the landing-stairs and made her with a swift run and a leap. I marveled at his catlike agility, responded to his wave of the hand, and turned to seek my own clothes at the Hare and Hounds, fortunately close by.
For all that I was a happy-go-lucky young devil this morning's affair left me in somewhat of a daze. Or perhaps the rum punch contributed to that effect. However, I was gradually coming to an understanding of things. Russel had come up to me in an evil humor, thinking that I was shirking my duty by loafing ashore; which would well account for his attitude.
Not until I had nearly reached my lodgings did I recall that extraordinary meeting with the man Dennis Langton, and clapped hand to pocket with an exclamation. I had clear forgotten to speak of him to Ned Low!
However, no matter now. It was evident that he must have seen Low that morning, or have heard from him that I was in charge of the ship.
I packed my trunk and stepped in to the ordinary to pay off my landlord. Just then a number of men came crowding in with much high talk, amid which I caught the name of Langton. At that I turned and listened, while the landlord gaped likewise.
"And to think that Langton has all this while been a merchant in Lombard Street!" cried one man with a volley of oaths. "A pretty pass we're coming to in London town!"
"They say," chimed in another, "that he has already sold out his business and was in shape to skip the city--"
"All by accident he was betrayed," spoke up another, a late comer. "You've not heard? Zounds, a ripping story! In Lombard Street itself, only this morning, gentlemen! He came face to face with a shipman whom he'd plundered years ago, was recognized, dodged the hue and cry and broke clear away. Now the constables are searching the city for him, and the waterside as well. A pirate at loose--zounds!"
I paid my score, engaged a man to carry down the trunk and went my way somewhat thoughtfully.
This Dennis Langton, known for a pirate, was a friend of Low and was hoping to get aboard the King Sagamore. I was going as mate aboard that ship. So was John Russel; and my words had stung Russel that morning. Russel like Langton, had been on the Account, as those who take to piracy term the profession.
What about Ned Low? He was one of them; no use shirking the fact. This fine Virginia ship was going a-sailing on a mighty queer cruise, in ballast at that!
And what about me, George Roberts of Virginia?
Why, that was simple enough! Duty lay clear and straight before me--inform the authorities, have everyone aboard the King Sagamore laid by the heels, and become a popular hero! The ship would be saved to its owners and everybody happy.
Against this there balanced Ned Low's frank and keen blue eyes, the clap of his hand on my shoulder, the comradely liking I bore him. Aye, because I liked him I laughed at duty! Besides I was never a great hand at informing. If I want a thing done, I go do it; this running to catch-polls and constables is not to my mind.
So we came down again to the quay, and as I pocketed my pipe my hand touched the black snuffbox. I drew out the thing and looked at it, pressed the catch and opened it. Inside there was no snuff, but a folded, bone-hard bit of vellum. I put the thing away once more.
"Let sleeping dogs lie!" I reflected. "Dennis Langton may be caught. If he's been posing as a merchant here in London, he'll be well known and should be caught in an hour's time. That may simplify matters a bit.
"As for Ned Low, I trust him more than a little, and he should have sense enough to know that I'm not going on the Account. Perhaps that's not his own intention, either! I may be wronging him."
I called a wherry and was taken out toward the ship. As we approached her I fell to laughing again; for I had not the least notion whither she was bound or on what errand. And I remembered that featherbed going aboard, so that the whole affair struck me afresh with such whimsical humor that I could not refrain from laughing. Captain Low looked over the rail as we drew near, and he caught the infection and began to roar again with mirth, and was still grinning as I came over the side.
"Welcome!" he cried, and struck hands again, a hearty grip. "What's so merry?"
"Why, I can't remember where we are bound for," I said. "Guinea or the plantations?"
"It wasn't mentioned," and Low chuckled. "The Verde Islands, if you want to know, and then Barbados or elsewhere."
"Then we stow salt at the islands, do we?"
Low glanced around, saw that we were alone and gave me a straight look.
"Nay, Roberts--we stow gold! Art satisfied? And not on the Account neither."
I nodded, and once again forgot about Dennis Langton's message.